The fish butcher

Australian chef Josh Niland speaks to Restaurant magazine's Joe Lutrario about his ground-breaking book, which calls for a total rethink of how restaurants buy, store and serve fish.

7 October 2019
chefsfood wasteingredientsrestaurantsseafood
image credit: Rob Palmer

On page 44 of chef Josh Niland’s landmark book The Whole Fish is a full breakdown of a bass grouper that brings to mind a butcher’s cut chart, with no less than 31 different parts. A handful of these are familiar – there are portions that resemble fillets and pavés – but the majority will be alien to all but the most intrepid Western chefs.

Niland has borrowed from the meat world to produce spare ribs, jowls, cheeks, collars and even a forequarter rack that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Frenched rack of lamb. Alongside flesh and bone are the innards of the fish, including the liver, throat, heart and spleen. Broken down with surgical precision, it looks technically daunting.

But Niland – who runs two acclaimed venues in Sydney, a fish restaurant called Saint Peter and fishmonger Fish Butchery – does not expect his peers to follow it cut for cut. It’s there to highlight that the standard industry practice of removing the fillets from fish and throwing the rest in the bin is not good enough. With a little effort, nearly all parts of the fish can be rendered edible. And in Niland’s hands, every one of them can be rendered delicious.

“Respecting the animal by trying to use every bit of it is now an idea that’s totally accepted in the world of meat, but far less so with fish. If you buy a fish it’s your responsibility to use all of it. That seems obvious, but sadly it’s very rarely done,” says Niland.

Crimes of poisson

In the vast majority of kitchens, chefs will either buy in pre-filleted fish or quickly remove the fillets from whole or nearly whole fish, either throwing the rest away or using it to make a stock. A fish such as John Dory – which has a big head, a bulky frame but small fillets – has a yield of around 40%.

Other flat fish typically yield a little more, but not much. Round fish tend to have better yields – typically 60% to 70%. On top of this, poor filleting technique can result in a further 10% ending up in the bin.

“The bass grouper pictured in the book gave us a 91% yield from a fish that traditionally has a 40% yield,” says Niland. “Chefs have how to prepare a fish for cooking burnt into their brains. But they need to ask themselves questions. ‘Why am I cutting off the belly? Could I not just leave it on? Why square up a fillet? Why not cook fish on the bone?’ Instead of working with a bin next to you, put everything you take off into a container and have a look at it. You’ll be surprised.”

But there’s far more to The Whole Fish than rethinking carcass utilisation. The book – which hit the shelves last month (Hardie Grant, £25) – calls for chefs to completely rethink how they purchase, store, prepare and serve fish (though Niland understandably focuses on fish from the southern hemisphere, his ideas are applicable to any fish).

Treating fish like meat

The logical place to start is buying and storage, and the central concept here is that – oddly, given their preferred environment – water and moisture are the enemy of great fish.

“At Saint Peter and Fish Butchery people often ask me for my least fishy fish,” says Niland. “None of our fish is fishy. Fishy fish is the result of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) breaking down into derivatives of ammonia. This is a result of the fish being mishandled and is often ‘fixed’ by washing off the smell with tap water.”

This compounds the problem. Fish is like a sponge and will absorb the moisture, dramatically reducing both its shelf life and eating quality and promoting the release of yet more ammonia. Interestingly, acidic ingredients cause TMAO to bind with water and become less volatile (smelly), which is why fish is so commonly served with lemon and other acidic ingredients. Niland’s solution to fishy fish is dry handling throughout the supply chain.

“Not only will you get a better quality of fish, you will also increase shelf life to eight to 10 days. This will vastly simplify logistics and reduce wastage.”

At Fish Butchery – which supplies Saint Peter – fish is dried carefully with a cloth and hung by the tail with a hook to maximise its exposure to the air in a setup that’s nearly identical to that of a meat ageing room.

“We also cut the scales off with a knife rather than a fish scaler, which leaves you with the actual skin of the fish. If you leave the honeycomb-like membrane on the fish, it traps the moisture and makes it harder to keep it dry,” says Niland, who also points out that there are few better ways to encourage the development of ammonia than following the near-ubiquitous industry practice of holding filleted fish ready for service on a tray lined with blue cloth and tightly covering it with clingfilm.

The majority of fish at Saint Peter and Fish Butchery is aged for what most chefs would consider an extreme amount of time – Niland ages tuna and swordfish for well over a week before serving them. Different species have different aging times, and some – including smaller and more delicate fish such as whiting and herring – are best eaten very fresh.

A high fat content and dense muscle composition indicate a fish is likely to age well. Fish needs to be kept dry (and cold) the moment it leaves the water. Niland concedes that his unusually close relationship with his suppliers makes it easier for him to control what happens to his fish before it enters his kitchen. But there are some simple steps restaurants can take to ensure fish arrives in good condition.

“The first thing to do is commit to the labour of scaling and gutting your fish in-house,” he says. “You can also ask your supplier how the fish is currently being stored. If it’s being stored on ice – which will inevitably melt – you can ask them to put it in a dry container.”

The next big barrier for chefs to overcome is to stop looking at fish in such narrow terms.

“In general, chefs are far less creative with fish dishes than they are with meat dishes. There’s far more to it than white fillets on garnishes. Pretty much everything you can do to meat you can do to fish,” he says.

image credit: Rob Palmer

A common mistake is to let the garnish dictate the fish, when really it should be the other way round.

“Don’t be a chef who has a handful of fish in their repertoire that go with a handful of garnishes,” Niland continues. “When you get a fish in, cook a slice of it and just eat it for what it is. Think about how to cook it. Is pan frying really the best option?”

A quick flick through the book reveals Niland doesn’t just talk the talk. While there are some takes on classic fish preparations, the majority use meat dishes as a jumping-off point to create strikingly original plates of food. There is a take on buttermilk-fried chicken using blue-eyed trevalla; a salmon wellington; a bacon and egg muffin made with swordfish bacon; and a play on steak tartare with well-aged yellowfin tuna standing in for the beef.

“When I see a whole swordfish, I always see a pig. Any opportunity I see in a pig, I see in a swordfish. There are no rules. Our swordfish bacon is very similar to pork bacon. With the aid of a bandsaw we can also do a standing rib of swordfish that looks like a bistecca Fiorentina. It’s not about manipulation. It’s about confrontation removal. We want to make people feel comfortable with something they might otherwise not be.”

Embracing innards

Perhaps the most exciting part of Niland’s repertoire is his offal dishes, particularly as they champion parts of the fish that are nearly always binned by restaurants.

“Monkfish liver is a thing. Caviar is from sturgeon. Bottarga is roe from a mullet. But for some reason there’s no desirability for anything outside of those ingredients. But if I give you herring roe or blue mackerel roe you’ll find it just as delicious. Yet little else gets air time. At least not in western cooking cultures. It should be recognised that Asians have been eating every bit of the fish for thousands of years,” says Niland, who cites the work of St John’s Fergus Henderson as one of his key inspirations.

“I’ve always put that restaurant on a pedestal because of the humility the kitchen shows to the product. And guess what: you can put a cleaver between a large fish’s backbone, extract the marrow and roast it the oven and serve it with a parsley and shallot salad just like Fergus does with beef marrow.”

Part of the reason for Niland making preparations that reference meat products is because they can make it easier for his customers to get their heads round eating the more icky bits. For example, he uses milt (fish sperm) to make a take on mortadella that’s served as part of a bánh mì sandwich.

“Milt’s not an impossible sell. It’s creamy and soft and delicious. But as soon as you say sperm, people go a bit crazy,” Niland continues. “But we eat fish eggs, right?”

Fish heart, spleen, roe, head, blood and bone marrow all make regular appearances on the menu at Saint Peter – dishes include prawn crackers made with fish eyeballs; black pudding made using fish blood; fried scales; glazed fish throats; and smoked hearts, spleens and roes – and are also found on the counter at Fish Butchery alongside advice on how to cook it.

But why fish? Why does a chef with the creative capacity of Niland choose to limit himself to just one type of protein?

“Because I find it really hard,” is his immediate reply. “It’s uncharted waters for most chefs. The reason for people not eating the whole fish – especially the icky bits – is most chefs’ inability to make it appealing. I love the challenge of making an eyeball approachable for my mum, and I also like the idea of convincing a macho guy who thinks what he really wants is a rib of beef to enjoy a cut of fish on the bone.”

This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of Restaurant magazine.

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